Over this series we’ve been digging in to how decisions and therefore change is made in the UK. Hopefully by this point, we all have a stronger understanding of the structures in place that lead to policy change, but we shouldn’t stop there. The final question we’re addressing is: what can I do to make change?
It’s easy to feel helpless in the face of the challenges in making change. Political activism can feel overwhelming. There are those who may be very well-meaning that find voting in elections and occasionally signing a petition or writing a letter to an MP is as much as they can hope to contribute. The scale of the challenge in making your visions of society come true may seem an impossible dream. But in this post we want to uncover some of the ways that you might be able to work towards making change a reality.
There’s a few key points that should be stressed to those seeking to make change regardless of the issue or who you are hoping to influence:
1. Find allies. Whilst it’s great to be asking “what can I do?” the reality is that change only happens when it’s done as a “we”. If you have a passion for change, find out who is already acting on this, campaigners, politicians, charities etc. Make sure you get involved in the conversations that are already happening. If there isn’t anyone obvious, reach out and find supporters from those around you by sharing your passions with them, so that you are approaching people of influence with the authority of a movement of people who care.
2. Prepare for the long game. Policy changes don’t happen overnight, the issue you care about will likely take years to see transformation happen. It’s about being proactive, working with policymakers as they consider options. Being merely reactive to policy decisions you disagree with puts you on the back foot.
3. Show up. There’s an important call for people of faith to step up and serve in public life. Grassroots activism, social justice projects are all vitally important, but what if the people doing these things also took up positions of public leadership? There’s also a call to build relationship, as in all walks of life there is a strength in relationship. Meeting with your MP, MSP, local councillor etc. could build a relationship that means you can work in partnership for the good of your community and wider society.
4. Recognise the context you are in. Each situation is unique. Do your research so that you can be confident in your policy asks. Make sure you know who you are lobbying. Each MP, for example, will have a couple of areas they are particularly invested in—how does your passion align with theirs? Is it your MP you should be speaking to or should it be a devolved administration or local councillor?
How can I practically make change within political institutions?
At JPIT we have been encouraging you to meet your MP. The purpose of this is to build relationship with your MP by inviting them to meet you and your Church community. There are many important issues that galvanise widespread support and a huge influx in letters to MPs offices. However, if this lasts only as long as the news cycle, MPs know they may not have to act. Through building a relationship with your MP, you give them an opportunity to better understand the activities and concerns of their local community. And in this relationship it becomes a place where you can engage in a more sustained campaigning, with specific policy asks, which is more likely to heed results and lead to change.
To find out more about the Meet Your MP campaign head to: http://jpit.uk/issues/politics-and-elections/meetyourmp/
Talking to your MP is not the only way you can engage with Parliament. Committees often request calls for evidence in which relevant stakeholders to a policy change can offer their input. There are also regular events in Parliament where lobbying groups have the opportunity to meet with Parliamentarians to discuss their concerns and build key contacts. Initiating these again must come from relationship, finding an MP who is sympathetic to your cause and engaging with them as your sponsor.
Case Study: The Autism Act
Over 10 years ago the National Autistic Society, alongside other supporters, campaigned for autistic adults to receive necessary support. They specifically campaigned for legislation that ensured the NHS, national government and local councils were accountable to autistic people. They built a relationship with the MP Cheryl Gillan, who was passionate about this cause. She was able to present a Private Members Bill to Parliament. Over two years charities, campaigners and supporters pushed MPs to support this bill, which then became law in 2009, putting “statutory duties” on local authorities to implement a government strategy to meet the needs of autistic adults in England.
Each devolved administration is different and again there are many creative ways to engage with the decision making of these authorities. In Scotland, for example, public petitions can be an important gateway into the parliamentary process. In Wales, the Welsh Assembly Government has a statutory duty to consult with the voluntary and community sector through the Third Sector Scheme. So if you are working within a formalised group this may be an opportunity to engage further. In Northern Ireland, working with MLAs to propose adjournment debates can be a key way to engage other politicians and Ministers. Even something as simple as organisations based near Stormont offering spaces for hosting committee meetings can be an important step in building good relationships for your campaign work!
Here is some helpful guidance from the NCVO covering different ways to engage in your specific context: https://therightethos.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/NC571_In_Focus_guide_6_PDF_final_VERSION.pdf .
Case Study: Period Poverty
In 2020 Scotland became the first country in the world to make all period products free. This came out of years of campaigning around the tampon tax and period poverty. It was through campaigning from charities such as Girlguiding Scotland and others that put pressure on MSPs to support the bill, initially proposed by Labour MSP Monica Lennon. This pressure led to the SNP government, who had originally opposed the bill, to make a U-turn and support the bill.
The best way to influence local government is to begin before you have a specific campaign. Each local authority operates differently, so it is important to be proactive in understanding how your local council works and to build relationships with key people in the council and other local agencies. Understanding things such as what the statutory obligations of the council are will help add legal weighting to your campaign if what you are asking for closely aligns with meeting one of these obligations. Being clear on your specific aims will help you become more widely recognised and associated with the issue you care about, offering opportunities to be invited into the decision-making process. There are also opportunities through the localism act for community groups to bid to run local authority services, it also provides communities with the right to build, reclaim land and bid.
For further guidance have a look at: https://smk.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Influencing-local-government.pdf
Case Study: Waterworks Festival
In 2020 a music festival was set to be held on adjacent to the Waterworks Nature Reserve in Waltham Forest. However, there was significant concerns from local environmental groups on the impact this would have on wildlife in the reserve. These groups mobilised community action through holding meetings and offered guidance to individuals submitting concerns to the licensing sub-committee of the local authority. They also identified that within the licensing regulations there was scope to raise concerns around noise pollution and crime, which was likely to hold more weight with the licensing authority. 350 submissions opposing the application were received. This pressure placed upon the local authority led to community meetings with the council to discuss the concerns and eventually led to the council denying the festival a licence.
Influencing policy can be a challenging process that requires serious commitment to making change happen. However, as the case studies above show, making change is possible. But to do so we need to ensure the ask is clear, different groups come together, the specific policy context is considered and that passion and enthusiasm leads to a sustained commitment to the cause.